Friday, 31 March 2017

Book Review: Água Viva by Clarice Lispector to scientists specialised in the workings of the brain, the present lasts no longer than three seconds. Certainly, when we say “now”, we seldom think of it as such a short period of time, but language is necessarily imprecise and in addition meaning changes with context as well as with people concerned. Nonetheless, we may agree on it that the present is nothing but a fleeting moment that separates past and future… and it’s all that we actually have. Everything else only exists as an idea in the mind, as a memory of what has been or as a notion of what will be. In daily life, most of us don’t pay particular attention to the here and now with all that it implies. To capture the present, to live it and to be it is the goal of the painter who dives into the stream of thoughts forming the novel Água Viva by Clarice Lispector.

Clarice Lispector was born Chaya Pinkhasovna Lispector (Хая Пинхасовна Лиспектор) in Chechelnyk, Podolia (today: Vinnytsia Oblast), Russian Empire (today: Ukraine), in December 1920. The Jewish family fled from the Soviet Union and arrived in Brazil early in 1922. At the age of 12 years the author felt for the first time the urge to write, but after high school she studied law at the University of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. During her studies she made her literary debut with the short story Triunfo (Triumph) published in a magazine in 1940 and began to work as a journalist. In 1943 she brought out her first novel Near to the Wild Heart (Perto do coração selvagem) that was immediately acclaimed by critics and received a prestigious literary award. Many successful novels and short story collections followed, most notable among them The Apple in the Dark (A Maçã no Escuro: 1961), Passion According to G. H. (A Paixão segundo G. H.: 1964), Água Viva (Água viva: 1973; previously translated into English as The Stream of Life), and The Hour of the Star (A hora da Estrela: 1977). Clarice Lispector died in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in December 1977. Her last novel Breath of Life (Um Sopro de Vida: 1978) was published posthumously.

Like “living water” or “jellyfish” – as would be possible literal translations of the Portuguese title Água Viva into English – the thoughts that the unnamed first-person “narrator” puts into words are difficult to capture and hold on to. They float with the seemingly chaotic stream of her consciousness and combine to a “novel” without plot nor action. There isn’t even the smallest cast of characters, either, leaving out of account the absent lover to whom the book is addressed almost in the way of a letter and who otherwise gets no room, not even a name in it. In soliloquy-like musings the narrator sets out to pin down the present moment:
“[…] I'm trying to capture the fourth dimension of the now-instant, which is so fleeting it no longer is because it has already become a new now-instant, which also is no longer. Each thing has an instant in which it is. I want to take possession of the thing's is. […] And I want to capture the present which, by its very nature, is forbidden me: the present flees from me, the moment escapes me, the present is myself forever in the now. […]”
Quite at the beginning the narrator identifies herself as an abstract painter who is successful enough to see her pictures exhibited, but the euphoria of recent separation – and regained freedom – urges her to express herself for the very first time with the pen instead of the paintbrush. She decides to go about the unfamiliar task like someone who is learning and recognises many parallels to her painting as well as to other arts like photography and (less obviously) music. She thinks about the absent and the ambiguous in artwork that is often more important than what can be clearly seen or heard. What she experiences writing, goes much further, though.
“I achieve a state behind thought. I refuse to divide it into words—and what I cannot and do not want to express keeps being the most secret of my secrets. I know that I'm afraid of the moments when I don't use thought and it's a momentary state, difficult to reach that, all secret, no longer uses the words with which thoughts are formed. Is not using words to lose ones identity? is it to become lost in the essential, destructive shadows?”
Along the way, the narrator meditates on anything that comes to her mind. Some subjects like the days of the weeks or mirrors appear only in marginal notes, while others like flowers and God take up longer passages and references to diverse kinds of animals run through the entire book. Ever again she compares her attempt to capture the now-instant with the process of giving birth and being born. The musings also reflect the ups and downs of her emotions.

Basically, Água Viva is a first-person internal monologue – or stream of consciousness, if you prefer – that defies usual classification regarding literary form and genre because it’s a novel just as much as it’s an essay or prose poetry. In some reviews I’ve seen it called a book of non-narrative fiction and this is probably the most accurate definition that it allows. Fragmented as the text is, it reminded me of a writing technique called automatic writing that the French surrealists appreciated. At the same time, it made me think of what people versed in meditation use to call the “monkey mind” because thoughts tend to jump around wildly following any association. Despite the complete absence of a plot the “novel” is an amazingly captivating read, above all thanks to the poetic language that flows over with most beautiful as well as powerful images. Having been afraid that the original Brazilian-Portuguese edition would be far too difficult for me to understand because Clarice Lispector is known for having deliberately disregarded rules of grammar, I read a German edition. The quotations I used are from an earlier English translation by Elizabeth Lowe and Earl Fitz that was titled The Stream of Life.

Reading Água Viva by Clarisse Lispector has been a bit of a strange though far from unpleasant experience for me. In fact, I enjoyed this unconventional novel from Brazil very much although – unlike The Monkey Grammarian by Octavio Paz (»»» read my review) or The Hive by José Camilo Cela (»»» read my review) that don’t have much of a plot, either – it didn’t give me even the faintest trace of a story to cling to. To my own surprise, I found that the author’s very diverse and discontinuous reflections on the nature of the present, or in a wider sense, on life altogether were enough to hold my interest. Or maybe I just couldn’t escape the enchanting poetry of the author’s words. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The read gave me great pleasure and therefore I gladly recommend it.

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This review is a contribution to
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  1. I am glad you liked this. I read her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart, and while I understood what she was writing about and found her language as poetic as you say, it was a difficult read for me. I guess I like at least some semblance of a plot, even though I like novels of ideas.

    1. I agree that it can be hard to keep reading on when the author doesn't guide you through her book with some kind of rudimentary plot at least. I think that this one needs to be read as it was written (according to the book): being entirely in the moment... floating with the words before your eyes.


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